Today we welcome a special guest writer to the Local Area Watch. Dan Tietema will periodically contribute articles on life in Grand Rapids from the perspective of an ordinary resident whose insight, we think you’ll find, are anything but ordinary. – WQT3, Executive Director LAW.
It is amazing how much the game of youth baseball has changed in America over the past three decades. There was a time when kids enjoyed playing on a dirt-covered field embedded with pebbles and stones just big enough to deflect any sharply hit ground ball. Long gone are the days of keeping track of wins and losses and limiting the number of coaches in a dugout to one. I know this to be true because I remember my first year of baseball. The team that I played with practiced for hours on batting, fielding, and throwing about twice a week in order to prepare for the big game on Saturday. We were only seven, but we knew the game inside and out and understood what it took to achieve success.
Our coach was tough and demanded perfection from all us, and he did not waste time with much encouragement. Instead, we quickly adapted to his coaching style and learned the game by overcoming barriers and obstacles. There were no favorites and everyone had the opportunity to take part in the action – even if they didn’t want to. Knowing the basics were imperative and in many cases, just implied. You were expected to keep an eye on the ball when swinging the bat and instinctively knew when and where to run immediately after contact without any directional screams from the crowd. We knew the importance of keeping our head down when fielding a groundball in practice, because, should there have been an error made, you didn’t get a sentimental “that’s ok, son!” Instead, you nervously held your breathe and waited as the coach took a long drag from the cigarette permanently attached to his mouth to receive a second chance at fielding the ball, only this time - twice as hard.
Baseball, perhaps even all sports, is different today. We live in an era where we want our kids to participate in as many activities as possible without ever stressing the importance of competition. More importantly, we are doing everything possible to prevent our children from ever having to shoulder any pain or disappointment in any failed attempts or in defeat. Being “fair” and “equal playing time” is the norm today and we certainly are not interested in who ends up on top. At least, we don’t display that interest publicly.
My seven-year-old son Jack is now in Little League after two years of playing tee-ball through the Grand Rapids Parks & Recreation Department program. Jack is in the 7 & 8 year-old division where a coach pitches the ball to the batter to promote hitting and more importantly, to speed the game up. Games are limited to five runs per inning, with no strikeouts and the batter/runner is allowed ONLY one base after a hit. And, of course, NO winners and NO losers – even though everyone attending is keeping score on their-own.
The role of the parent today has been reduced from supporter to now cheerleader, where it becomes more important for the grown-up to consistently holler out words of encouragement to the young athlete after getting out and reminding him that everything is OK. Poor performance or lack of effort is often celebrated and applauded to reduce any potential damage to the already fragile egos of these “little leaguers”. Now, I am not saying that we throw bottles at these kids or shout at them when they mess up. And, I certainly do not wish to see any child hurt physically or emotionally. I am just suggesting that maybe we have made too many changes to the game of baseball and underestimate the strengths, talents, and perseverance of our children. Perhaps – just perhaps, that by altering the rules in order to make the game more fun and enjoyable, it may actually have a detrimental effect and only push our kids back instead of moving them forward.
I have seen on occasion a batter swinging over 20 times, (never coming close to the ball) before finally hitting a “dribbler” to the pitcher, where he was easily thrown out. Upon returning to the bench, cheers of “Great Try! Or Yea! Anyways!” were echoed from the stands. Any chance the kid felt miserable that he just spent five minutes up at the plate without ever coming close to hitting the ball? At least with the “three strike, yer out” scenario, the child could walk away with some dignity. As for the individuals that do have some talent, the game has become boring. I noticed them skipping or jogging to first base after long hits to the outfield and barely pay attention to details when playing defense.
No one wins when you “dumb down” the sport of baseball, except for the parents who cannot deal with the fact that other children may have an athletic advantage. The participation in any sport or other activities that emphasizes achievement embodies the “American way of life” and should be a great opportunity for kids to become educated on the importance of success and how to reach it. I believe that we are doing a huge disservice to our younger generation by removing the many barriers that stand in the way of progress.
But what do you expect when leaders and politicians today are constantly changing the rules for personal gains and/or achievement. Recently, our own mayor of Grand Rapids, George Heartwell, made news for aggressively challenging the outcome of an election in which the voters from Michigan overwhelmingly decided to eliminate preferential treatment in our state. Mayor Heartwell’s belief was that this decision was too offensive and hurtful for the Grand Rapids community and felt compelled to stay the course and continue down the road of his own interpretation of choosing winners and losers despite what our electorate decided months ago. Unfortunately, for some, the rules that are put in place to keep order do not apply to all, therefore, causing confusion, and ultimately having a negative influence on our community.
We all know that before a child can walk, he must first learn how to crawl, and “life experience” is truly the most important ingredient to success. It is my wish that baseball players of any age can savor the joy of wining but not before feeling the utter embarrassment of being blown out by ten and suffer the tremendous amount of pain of losing by one run. I believe you should try at least once to stretch a single into a double and experience the intense enjoyment of getting caught in a “pickle”. I hope that our kids continue to dream about a day they make the game winning hit or catch after striking out or committing a crucial error in the last inning. I think it is important for our children to someday be called out at the plate only to find out later that the umpire was the uncle to one of the opposing players. And I expect after being nearly hit by an inside pitch that our kids can calmly dust themselves off and energetically get back up to plate, but be the first to rush to the aid of a fellow teammate in need of defense. It is my desire that we teach our children the lessons of the game of baseball the same way we would educate them on life. Moreover, I hope that our kids learn the values of winning and losing and the importance of treating everyone with dignity and respect.
Editor’s note: Dan Tietema is a life-long resident of Grand Rapids and entrepreneur, who has this to say about himself: “I have become interested in the positive growth our community after recognizing the vast changes (both positive and negative) that our city has experienced over the past two decades. I decided to get involve and become active in local politics to expose the partisanship that currently exists in our non partisan government and to bring a ‘conservative’ voice to Grand Rapids.”